Saturday, February 17, 2018

2831. Too Little, Too Late: Climate Crisis and the OFF Act Bill of Congresswoman Tulsi Gabber

By David Jones, February 16, 2018

Editor's Note: Last week, someone from Food & Water Action Off Fossil Fuels campaign contacted me asking for Our Place in the World's support for Ms. Tulsi Gabber's OFF Act bill in U.S. Congress. Ms. Gabber is representative from the State of Hawai'i.  I was unable to reach the person who called to respond to his request. I decided to share the email with the appeal for endorsement and the text of the OFF Act bill with the System Change not Climate Change (SCnCC) ecosocialist listserv asking for comments.  David Jones wrote back with an interesting response which was expanded for publication below.  I invite response to Jones' critique from the readers.  KN

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“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”   Somebody

Because the task of critique is to make people uncomfortable, I will preface what I am about to say with some personal background I hope might ease some of the (necessary) tension. I am a laborer with little formal education. I have spent decades as a grass-roots organizer working with mainstream environmental and social justice non-profits canvassing neighborhoods, lobbying legislators, providing comments and testimony to rule making and regulatory processes, collaborating and building coalitions. In other words, trying to work through the institutions of liberal capitalist democracy. I am also the grandfather of a one year old and am anxious- no, outraged- about the future she will inherit. Therefore, in a deep, painful, reflective process I have had to confront the failure of my past activity. As a worker, I had to recognize our movement has imploded. As a citizen I had to recognize our democracy is a hollowed out farce. As an activist I had to accept our strategy was not building a mass movement for progressive change. And that when it came to climate change, time was running out and we had to get this one right. My only option was a total, critical re-evaluation; a questioning of every basic assumption (thankfully done with a supportive intellectual community). Thus was I radicalized. From the pain and ashes rose a systemic, anti-capitalist critique which is still evolving. Challenge me on any of these assertions, please, but that’s where I’m at. 

It is famously difficult to notice your range of options narrowing in real time, as it is happening. This shrinking is a nuanced, negative process that doesn’t become apparent until, (paradoxically, given the sense of urgency), we can stop acting and pause long enough to examine. This is the paradox the climate justice movement has failed to confront. With each moment that goes by and each new ton of CO2 emitted, the possible strategies for avoiding climate catastrophe are diminished. An action that might have produced results in time had it been implemented even five years ago, may now be useless, or even worse than useless in the sense of expending valuable energy and transmitting a false sense of security.
An example would be the climate legislation currently before Congress, a bill called the OFF Act  introduced to the House by Tulsi Gabbar of Hawaii and the 100 by 50 bill introduced by Merkley and Sanders in the Senate. Both contain measures and provisions long sought by progressive climate groups such as government investment in technology R&D, loan guarantees, incentives, subsidies, tax credits and start-up grants. They include a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects, a ban on crude and LNG exports, lots of “just transition” and “indigenous rights” language and emphasis on green transport and energy conservation. Money to pay for it to come from fossil fuel majors. Sounds pretty good if you could ignore this sub-section: 

“It is the duty of Congress to ensure that any transition to a 100% clean energy economy does not adversely affect the economy of the United States.” 

But even given their limitations, had bills such as this been passed and implemented just fifteen years ago, they might very well have lessened U.S. emissions and alerted a mostly passive citizenry to the imminent danger. Unfortunately, though the threat of climate change was well known then, no such legislation was implemented for the obvious reason (see sub-section above). And today, even with our expanded knowledge of climate-related extreme weather events and with climate models predicting catastrophic ecological consequences sans action, these bill are non-starters in the US Congress. 

What I am arguing, however, is that even were the movement to rally support and get the bills passed, that even were their provisions implemented, at this late date they won’t come close to the reductions those models say are necessary. In this race, winning slowly is the same as losing. Which is why such measures are simply too little too late. This applies to the provisions of the Paris Accord, to the Tax and Dividend proposal put forth by Citizens Climate Lobby and a host of other regulatory remedies. So why spend precious time and energy promoting them? Many point to past legislative gains such as Clean Air and Water Acts or Endangered Species and Wilderness Acts as positive outcomes resulting from dedicated organizing. Many say these efforts allow us to connect, to build alliances along a broad range of political positions. Many say even slow, incremental change is better than none.

I contend all these regulatory remedies and acts, those proposed as well as those enacted, are problematic in terms of both their content and their form. That beyond their lack of ambition they are easily subverted ( how “clean” is our air and water, how many species are endangered, how much wilderness exist?) and often shift responsibility and pollution to marginalized communities around the globe. And again, I welcome debate on any of these points. 

But I also believe the regulatory or policy approach is problematic at a deeper strategic level as well, what I have called their “form”. I would argue that these legislative, procedural, regulatory “fixes” convey to the general public that what they face is not an unfolding existential crisis, but yet another “concern”, one (among many) that the political class and technocrats will get around to fixing in due time. That you can go about your normal business and be an activist in your spare time. It transmits the message that “democratic” capitalism is a viable project that provides solutions, that the system is legitimate and, though perhaps slow and erratic, works for the benefit of most. That capitalism can be “greened” and given a “human face”.

 Which it isn’t and doesn’t and can’t. Despite the rosy proclamations of mainstream climate groups that the falling price of solar or action at the local level can keep catastrophe at bay, I contend the science tells us otherwise, at the same time admitting this is a subjective analysis, that it is impossible to prove definitively. I would also argue that due to inaction and delay, we have boxed ourselves into a corner time-wise. Climate change is imagined as an infinitely gradual linear process. In reality it is a steep downhill incline leading to a precipice.  That same subjective analysis leads to the conclusion that no amount of subsidies, credits, incentives or change in consumption choices will slow emissions in time to prevent those irreversible feed-back loops or “tipping points” from kicking in, much less bring us back down to 350 ppm. The only thing that will is an end to economic growth as measured by GDP and a whole reconfiguration of the global economy itself. But this necessary, and yes improbable restructuring won’t happen through legislation or local, incremental reform. Such actions will in fact prove counter-productive.

And it’s not as if climate change is the only ecological emergency the planet faced. We are flirting dangerously with other critical “planetary boundaries” which threaten existence (as we know it) every bit as much as global warming, though with differing time-lines. In this sense, endorsing small-scale reform, no matter how well meant, only reinforces the illusion that the problems are manageable under current systems of production and governance. It only further confuses a public inundated with mixed messaging as to the severity of the crisis. And I don’t believe it gets us where the science tells us we really need to be. 
 Which brings up another critical question: Is science the Truth and will scientists be the final authorities? I have made a number of assumptions based on my understanding of “the science” or “data” such as the timeline, the impending effects of warming, the resulting “catastrophe”, etc.. We know the science is based on modeling with a range of variability expressed in percentages; hence, an imperfect predictor. But it is in the subjective, non-empirical realm of the imagination that our vision of collapse or breakdown or catastrophe unfolds. In the time it has taken you to read this the situation has grown more desperate and the apocalyptic literature (film, artwork, research papers) multiplied exponentially. Tick toc.

It is at this point that I anticipate being accused of insisting upon, even fetishizing, ideological purity; of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Surely one has to “meet the people where they are at” and such radical prescriptions will be off-putting to many. 
Perhaps. Perhaps this is an unresolvable tension or “gap”. My rebuttal is that such candor might actually be refreshing to others, to those struggling with grief and information overload, with apathy or burnout or like myself not so long ago, a debilitating jumble of what Mark Fisher called “ideological rubble”. I would suggest the task of the radical then is to open up space foreclosed by the liberal imaginary. And to not make possibly condescending assumptions about one’s audience. By staking out a clear, concise and consistent position we take an authentically political stand, no matter how “marginalized”, one we can defend with empathetic, good-faith arguments, clear reasoning and where helpful, empirical data. What people will sense and be swayed by is the passion and strength of our convictions. Which we can only have if we speak our truth openly.

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